Thursday, August 27, 2009

Time to hit the road and learn!

Now that the 2009 summer travel season has come to a close, it’s time to focus our attention on the 2010 season. Each year we dive deep into the detail of the past season to draw out lessons learned, best practices, and detailed information that will be transferred into action plans that enable us to continually enhance our safety practices. Although 2009 was a great season, like all responsible organizations, we must never rest on our success, but continually seek new and innovative ways to improve our systems and processes. One of the ways we accomplish that objective is to participate in industry conferences designed to share ideas and concepts with other educational travel providers.

Tomorrow I will depart for Norfolk, VA to attend the Student Youth Travel Association’s (SYTA) Annual Conference. The SYTA Conference is considered the premier event for the student and youth travel market. The Conference provides educational growth and information sharing to help companies involved with student travel improve themselves and the products and services they provide.

SYTA is the non-profit, professional trade association that promotes student & youth travel and seeks to foster integrity and professionalism among student and youth travel service providers. SYTA also maintains and is guided by an Educational Advisory Board comprised of representatives from organizations such as the Canadian Association of Principals, National Association of Music Education, National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Association of State Boards of Education, National Middle School Association, and the National School Boards Association.

By participating in this conference, we are able to learn and share best industry practices and also help shape future policies and regulations that will impact the Educational Travel Industry.
Attending this year’s conference with me will be Shannon Scheiwiller, the Senior Director of Leadership Programs. Shannon is also a nominee to the Board of Directors for SYTA. Shannon is responsible for our leadership development programs in prominent centers of history and learning—including Washington, D.C., London, Brussels, Paris, and top American universities. Students from grades 5-12 come from all over the world to hone their leadership skills, prepare for college, and explore future careers through unique access to extraordinary people, places, and insights.

I will also participate in the leadership of this organization this year by serving on the Professional Development Committee. This committee will evaluate Travel Accreditation Programs, Certified Student Travel Professional Programs, and Supplier Certification programs. All are designed to ensure the highest standards of safety and excellence of the operators we associate with. I’m excited about this opportunity.

On October 13th, I will be the keynote speaker on best practices for the handling of swine flu. This will be an Educational Conference Call sponsored by SYTA and offered to all members. I will share our successes in the handling of swine flu exposure to help other organizations successfully react to this disease as the nation continues to develop its pandemic response. Our experiences in China uniquely qualify our organization for leading this event as we did not have a single case of swine flu in China during the travel season due to the proactive steps we took in preparing our associates, students, parents, and leaders for travel.

I will provide more information on the scheduled conference call and the information shared as the date grows closer. I also plan to highlight lessons learned at this conference in my blog next week so please come back to view them.

If you would like more information about SYTA please go to or you may contact them directly at the address or phone number listed below.

SYTA Office
Student & Youth Travel Association
8400 Westpark Drive, 2nd Floor
McLean, VA 22102-5116
Tel: 703-610-1263

With that, it’s time for me to pack my bag and hit the road. As always, I wish you all safe travels and a healthy life!


Thursday, August 20, 2009

It’s now official; all students are home safe and sound

On Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 11:11 am you could hear a pin drop around the People to People program office here in Spokane, Washington. Moments later, the silence turned into an eruption of high-fives, cheers, and celebration. Why the sudden change in emotion? Well, at 11:12 am, Flight 62 from Narita to Los Angeles arrived 12 minutes early which marked the return of our final summer student delegation to U.S. soil for the 2009 season.

This also marked the beginning of the end for our On-Call team. I say the beginning of the end because they are still on guard until every single student and leader is home safely to their families. Since May 31 when our first delegation departed the U.S., the On-Call team has been manning the phones in our Delegate Support Call Center 24/7. That is 75 straight days covering over 1,800 continuous hours by dedicated associates on standby and communicating throughout the summer with family members who have relatives traveling with us.

As you can imagine, we receive thousands of calls during our peak summer travel season. This year, our call number topped out at 4,154 calls. The greatest number of calls this summer into our support network where classified “medical minor”. These are inbound calls from a teacher leader traveling with a student delegation. The majority of these calls were to let our team know that a student had a sore throat, a minor fever, or even an upset stomach. Once we receive that call, we immediately document the details in what we refer to as an incident report. With this incident report in hand, our On-Call team jumps into action. The team’s first and foremost priority is to immediately contact the family of the student and explain the situation. In many cases, the teacher leader has already phoned the parents to reassure them that the medical situation is a minor one and their child is being cared for. If there is any doubt to the severity of the situation, the teacher leader along with our on-site manager will quickly transport the student to a local hospital or clinic to get medical attention.

When we call home, most all parents thank us for contacting them and express appreciation for keeping them informed. On a rare occasion we do get a parent who has been awakened by our call in the middle of the night and feels we may have taken our parent notification policy a little far, but that’s okay with us. We prefer to respond immediately to inform family members about their child’s situation regardless of what time it is.

For our On-Call team it doesn’t end there. The team meets in our Command Center every morning at 8:30 am and again at 4:30 pm seven days a week. Representatives from each department are present to get an update report and handle all issues that fall into their area of expertise. Another purpose of this meeting is to ensure that someone is assigned to every single open incident and to take personal responsibility to make certain that all required follow-up is timely and accurately completed.

The second largest call volume each summer comes from lonely parents calling to ask us to contact their son or daughter and remind them to call home. In most cases, once a student begins our program, meets new friends, and takes part in life changing experiences, they get so wrapped up in all the happenings that they forget to check-in with mom and dad. These requests also go into incident reports and are tracked until we have confirmed with the parent that the student has made the call home.

I don’t want you to believe that we don’t deal with some serious events during the summer travel season, because we do. However, whether the incidents are major or minor in nature, we handle every situation with the same group of dedicated professionals and follow our safety protocols.

Ultimately, I am personally responsible for the On-Call team here at People to People and for preparing our associates to handle any situation. In the coming months, we will complete our review of the summer season. We will make the needed adjustments to our procedures and training methods so that in 2010 this team will continue to look for ways to improve and raise our travel safety standards.

As an organization, we are all committed to ongoing improvement and are highly focused on our ultimate goal, to ensure that no student, leader, or associate, ever comes in harm’s way. That’s my purpose and my passion here at People to People.

Here's wishing you safe travels and a healthy life!


Monday, August 10, 2009

Another Safe Summer Travel Season Comes to a Close

Here we are again with another summer coming to a close. As our final travelers head home from their journeys, it’s a perfect time to launch my regular travel safety blog. What I want to accomplish with my new blog is to talk about travel safety and the many ways safety impacts travel, trends, learnings, and also to establish open communications with you.

This summer has been full of some unique challenges. I’m happy to say that we have risen to all of them, and learned a lot in the process. This summer was all about moving quickly to manage the Swine Flu (H1N1) and eventual pandemic along with the very individual ways different countries responded to it. We at People to People Ambassadors Programs had a very significant China program this year, our groups were traveling through China all summer. The Chinese government in general, had the most aggressive response to the pandemic of any major country, holding anyone with a raised body temperature for as much as 24 hours in a hospital or placing in quarantine for up to seven days anyone who may have been exposed to the illness depending on where they sat on the plane. More than one People to People group was impacted this summer. See our web site for People to People’s response and my regular messages on the subject at

One of the most important things to do in a situation like the H1N1 pandemic is to maintain open channels of communication. Here are some of the procedures we immediately put into place to ensure that we did just that:

  • We immediately sent a senior team to China to make sure we had staff on the ground to ensure the health and safety of our student ambassadors; I headed out to China immediately myself to access the situation prior to our first student delegation arriving.
  • We immediately contacted the U.S. Embassy in China and worked with them throughout the summer.
  • We contacted all parents of students traveling to China at least 7 to 14 days in advance of their student’s program to complete a questionnaire and ensure we never sent a student exposed to, or with H1N1.
  • We immediately alerted all parents of anyone taken into quarantine or secondary screening at the hospital and maintained a 24-hour staff here in Spokane, which is standard procedure for the organization every travel season.
  • Each family with a quarantined student was assigned a specific Family Liaison Team member who they could contact 24 hours a day for any need they might have.
  • We alerted all parents with students traveling in the China program as to what was happening with the quarantine situation as it evolved.
  • We provided the quarantined students with laptops and cell phones so that they could keep in touch back home and let everyone know they were fine and to keep the lines of communication open.
  • Daily care packages were brought into the quarantine hotel to make sure the students had something to do, and brighten their day. I personally brought games, candy and other items in right away. We had so many gifts that the generous students shared with other people under quarantine!

Our leaders are world class! While not required to be there by the Chinese government, our leaders all volunteered to be quarantined to ensure the health and well-being of our students. In addition, nine other leaders volunteered to be placed with the 15 students who were taken to a local hospital for secondary screening.

Even though Chinese officials promised that we would always be able to have a student accompanied by a leader, in one case at a hospital used for the first time by the government they didn’t keep that promise. One of our leaders stayed directly outside the door to the quarantined student’s room to make sure that only the medical staff was entering. This leader is a great example of the level of commitment to the students of our extraordinary adults who lead People to People programs.

Beyond the international incident we tackled over the summer with the H1N1 virus, we also had one that was more of a personal nature. One unexpected incident that we handled this summer had to do with the brief disappearance of one of our students while in Paris, France. This student chose deliberately to slip away from the delegation to “explore independently.” As parents and delegates know, small-group exploration for short periods is a free-time activity for our older students only and much of the reason for our pre-travel screening of students; whether at home or abroad, teens need to make good decisions, follow the rules, and listen to those in charge. In this instance we did everything we could to ensure this student’s safety as quickly as possible:

  • We made contact with the student’s parents within an hour of the student intentionally leaving the hotel.
  • A citywide APB was put out within 2 hours.
  • We involved the U.S. Embassy, FBI, Paris police, and U.S. police in the search.
  • The Paris police requested a 24-hour period before the full search began, so we cooperated with the student’s parents instead to follow the student’s credit card use.
  • We obtained photos of the student using the ATMs by herself and under no apparent distress.
  • We sent staff to the locations where the card was being used to show photos of the student to the employees to see if anyone had seen the student.
  • We sent the parents to get emergency passports.
  • We arranged for the parents to be flown to Paris with a representative from our organization.
  • Within 36 hours the student was reunited with the parents at the U.S. Embassy.
  • The parents had their child formally apologize to our organization and the law officials for running away.
  • The parents and student were returned to the U.S.

For other People to People parents, I want you to know that this type of concern and responsiveness are available to each and every student. We don’t just pay lip-service to the idea that our students’ safety is our first priority. We live it—in cases like these, on a moment-to-moment basis, with the care and concern nearly as great as that of the parents.

Though our first concern is always the safety of the student, it was gratifying to speak to the U.S. Embassy in Paris, where a representative told us that in 20 years she had never seen an incident like this better handled by an organization.

My sole focus at People to People, as well as that of my entire team, is to ensure the health and safety of every single delegate. We are very proud of our ability to do just that during the 2009 season, even with unexpected situations and unexpected choices from students. We continually improve our ability to expect the unexpected and be prepared for all situations. It’s why I’m here, the only person in the industry with my job title and description. And that’s why we are dedicated to being the leader in offering high-quality, safe educational adventures for thousands of students every year.

The summer has nearly come to an end for People to People Ambassador Programs, and what a summer it has been. We saw some fabulous People to People moments—including the return of a World War II battle flag to a Japanese widow. Moments like this are the very essence of People to People—bridging cultural and political borders, and making the world a better place for future generations.

Until next time - I’m wishing you safe and happy travels,